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Holiday Lights Brighten Dreary Winter Nights

Please don't be offended, but my favorite part of the season has come. The Christmas lights are going up all over town.

I like them all: the teeny, tiny, ever-so-elegant white lights; the big, old-fashioned colored bulbs; the blinking strings; the flashing stars. I like the overdone, too-many-is-not-enough effect of the Rockefeller Center display. I even like bare, single bulbs atop electric candles, shining down from lonely third-floor garret windows. I never met a Christmas light I didn't like.

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Don't get me wrong - there's a lot not to adore about the stuff that goes along with the holiday wattage. Mechanical reindeer, long lines at the post office, and the inescapable strains of ''Jingle Bell Rock'' all come to mind. But if you can shut out the noise and the annoyance of the rest of it and drink in the glimmer with your eyes, you'll see what I mean.

It's one of the few holiday conspiracies that I can forgive, even applaud. I love how retailers and public-works crews sneak up earlier and earlier installations of these twinkly harbingers, and how together city hall and the private sector have consented to let them sparkle a few days longer each year.

Around Harvard Square, where I live in Cambridge, Mass., the stores begin plugging in by late October, shoving aside the pumpkins and goblins before the candy corn's been finished off. Most people find this a repulsive jump of the seasonal gun, but I disagree entirely. If it were up to me, Christmas lights would be mandatory by the last Sunday in October, to coincide with the end of daylight savings time. Then, at least, that first week of darkness at teatime would be offset by just a little sparkle at sundown.

Maybe that's the root of my love - the fact that Christmas lights come just when we need them most. The transition to that leafless, colorless end of autumn is cruel - no snow yet to soften the lines, no highlights to cover the gray.

It was a season that lasted too long when I was little, back in Maine, where the fall foliage peaked too early and the permissible date for erecting those outdoor displays was puritanically late. Rockland, my hometown, was a place where Christmas lights were a particularly low civic priority. The oversized tinsel candy canes attached to the streetlights that lined three blocks of Main Street were a poor substitute for the dazzle I longed for.

My only reprieve back then was our weekend trips north for skiing, which sent us up through Augusta every Friday afternoon and back each Sunday night. Those trips gave me a chance to gaze out at the capital's holiday exuberance, from the dome of the state house to the glitter of Western Avenue. We kids knew which stores and houses would have the best outdoor displays, as we memorized them from Christmases past. I remember peering out from our frosty station wagon with my nose pressed to the glass and my eyes crossed, to both blur and double the effect.

Perhaps the appeal of those little twinkles is based in some longing for the night sky we city dwellers have lost, a need that replaces the stars and meteorites we miss in our urban glow.

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But I think it's something more than physical, emotional, or even scientific. There's something special, something indefinable in those little, twinkly lights. Short days and long cold nights cry out for the darkness to be punctuated by a glow, a flame, a candle lit, a star atop a tree. Blinking rainbows that frame a window or sway from a power line lift my spirits beyond reason.

If we left them up all year long, the appeal might be lost. But since they do only come out for the holidays, perhaps it's the memory, literally rekindled, that makes for the annual enchantment - that makes me 10 years old each December, with my nose pressed against the window, and the glow of Augusta's lights, so vivid back then, even more so now.

I am knowingly passing the gift of wonder on. These days, when getting my four- and two-year olds bundled up and out the door is one of life's great challenges, I have a foolproof plan. ''Let's get your hats and mittens on,'' I say, ''so we can go see the star lights twinkle.'' Away we go, as quick as a preschooler in a snowsuit can be. Their eyes sparkle at the prospect.

And so do mine.

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